In all probability these three chapters originally formed a distinct composition. The main incidents recorded in them follow in the order of time, and are therefore in their proper place as regards historical sequence.
The golden calf - The people had, to a great extent, lost the patriarchal faith, and were but imperfectly instructed in the reality of a personal unseen God. Being disappointed at the long absence of Moses, they seem to have imagined that he had deluded them, and had probably been destroyed amidst the thunders of the mountain Exodus 24:15-18. Accordingly, they gave way to their superstitious fears and fell back upon that form of idolatry which was most familiar to them (see Exodus 32:4 note). The narrative of the circumstances is more briefly given by Moses at a later period in one of his addresses to the people Deuteronomy 9:8-21, Deuteronomy 9:25-29; Deuteronomy 10:1-5, Deuteronomy 10:8-11. It is worthy of remark, that Josephus, in his very characteristic chapter on the giving of the law, says nothing whatever of this act of apostacy, though he relates that Moses twice ascended the mountain.
Unto Aaron - The chief authority during the absence of Moses was committed to Aaron and Hur Exodus 24:14.
Make us gods - The substantive אלהים 'elôhı̂ym is plural in form and may denote gods. But according to the Hebrew idiom, the meaning need not be plural, and hence, the word is used as the common designation of the true God (Genesis 1:1, etc. See Exodus 21:6 note). It here denotes a god, and should be so rendered.
Break off the golden earrings - It has been very generally held from early times, that Aaron did not willingly lend himself to the mad design of the multitude; but that, overcome by their importunity, he asked them to give up such possessions as he knew they would not willingly part with, in the hope of putting a check on them. Assuming this to have been his purpose, he took a wrong measure of their fanaticism, for all the people made the sacrifice at once Exodus 32:3. His weakness, in any case, was unpardonable and called for the intercession of Moses Deuteronomy 9:20.
The sense approved by most modern critics is: and he received the gold at their hand and collected it in a bag and made it a molten calf. The Israelites must have been familiar with the ox-worship of the Egyptians; perhaps many of them had witnessed the rites of Mnevis at Heliopolis, almost; on the borders of the land of Goshen, and they could not have been unacquainted with the more famous rites of Apis at Memphis. It is expressly said that they yielded to the idolatry of Egypt while they were in bondage Joshua 24:14; Ezekiel 20:8; Ezekiel 23:3, Ezekiel 23:8; and this is in keeping with the earliest Jewish tradition (Philo). In the next verse, Aaron appears to speak of the calf as if it was a representative of Yahweh - “Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord.” The Israelites did not, it should be noted, worship a living Mnevis, or Apis, having a proper name, but only the golden type of the animal. The mystical notions connected with the ox by the Egyptian priests may have possessed their minds, and, when expressed in this modified and less gross manner, may have been applied to the Lord, who had really delivered them out of the hand of the Egyptians. Their sin then lay, not in their adopting another god, but in their pretending to worship a visible symbol of Him whom no symbol could represent. The close connection between the calves of Jeroboam and this calf is shown by the repetition of the formula, “which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt” 1 Kings 12:28.
These be thy gods - This is thy god. See Exodus 32:1 note.
When the people saw that Moses delayed - How long this was before the expiration of the forty days, we cannot tell; but it certainly must have been some considerable time, as the ornaments must be collected, and the calf or ox, after having been founded, must require a considerable time to fashion it with the graving tool; and certainly not more than two or three persons could work on it at once. This work therefore, must have required several days.
The people gathered themselves together - They came in a tumultuous and seditious manner, insisting on having an object of religious worship made for them, as they intended under its direction to return to Egypt. See Acts 7:39, Acts 7:40.
As for this Moses, the man that brought us up - This seems to be the language of great contempt, and by it we may see the truth of the character given them by Aaron, Exodus 32:22, they were set on mischief. It is likely they might have supposed that Moses had perished in the fire, which they saw had invested the top of the mountain into which he went.
The apostle adjured the Corinthians, “Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.” Should they become boastful and self-confident, neglecting to watch and pray, they would fall into grievous sin, calling down upon themselves the wrath of God. Yet Paul would not have them yield to despondency or discouragement. He gave them the assurance: “God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way of escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” AA 316.1
Paul urged his brethren to ask themselves what influence their words and deeds would have upon others and to do nothing, however innocent in itself, that would seem to sanction idolatry or offend the scruples of those who might be weak in the faith. “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God. Give none offense, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God.” AA 316.2Read in context »
While Moses was absent it was a time of waiting and suspense to Israel. The people knew that he had ascended the mount with Joshua, and had entered the cloud of thick darkness which could be seen from the plain below, resting on the mountain peak, illuminated from time to time with the lightnings of the divine Presence. They waited eagerly for his return. Accustomed as they had been in Egypt to material representations of deity, it had been hard for them to trust in an invisible being, and they had come to rely upon Moses to sustain their faith. Now he was taken from them. Day after day, week after week passed, and still he did not return. Notwithstanding the cloud was still in view, it seemed to many in the camp that their leader had deserted them, or that he had been consumed by the devouring fire. PP 315.1
During this period of waiting, there was time for them to meditate upon the law of God which they had heard, and to prepare their hearts to receive the further revelations that He might make to them. They had none too much time for this work; and had they been thus seeking a clearer understanding of God's requirements, and humbling their hearts before Him, they would have been shielded from temptation. But they did not do this, and they soon became careless, inattentive, and lawless. Especially was this the case with the mixed multitude. They were impatient to be on their way to the Land of Promise—the land flowing with milk and honey. It was only on condition of obedience that the goodly land was promised them, but they had lost sight of this. There were some who suggested a return to Egypt, but whether forward to Canaan or backward to Egypt, the masses of the people were determined to wait no longer for Moses. PP 315.2
Feeling their helplessness in the absence of their leader, they returned to their old superstitions. The “mixed multitude” had been the first to indulge murmuring and impatience, and they were the leaders in the apostasy that followed. Among the objects regarded by the Egyptians as symbols of deity was the ox or calf; and it was at the suggestion of those who had practiced this form of idolatry in Egypt that a calf was now made and worshiped. The people desired some image to represent God, and to go before them in the place of Moses. God had given no manner of similitude of Himself, and He had prohibited any material representation for such a purpose. The mighty miracles in Egypt and at the Red Sea were designed to establish faith in Him as the invisible, all-powerful Helper of Israel, the only true God. And the desire for some visible manifestation of His presence had been granted in the pillar of cloud and of fire that guided their hosts, and in the revealing of His glory upon Mount Sinai. But with the cloud of the Presence still before them, they turned back in their hearts to the idolatry of Egypt, and represented the glory of the invisible God by the similitude of an ox! PP 315.3Read in context »
18. Original Law in Heavenly Ark—I warn you, Do not place your influence against God's commandments. That law is just as Jehovah wrote it in the temple of heaven. Man may trample upon its copy here below, but the original is kept in the ark of God in heaven; and on the cover of this ark, right above that law, is the mercy seat. Jesus stands right there before that ark to mediate for man (Manuscript 6a, 1886). 1BC 1109.1
Law Preserved in Ark—“And He [Christ] gave unto Moses, when He had made an end of communicating with him upon Mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written by the finger of God.” Nothing written on those tables could be blotted out. The precious record of the law was placed in the ark of the testament and is still there, safely hidden from the human family. But in God's appointed time He will bring forth these tables of stone to be a testimony to all the world against the disregard of His commandments and against the idolatrous worship of a counterfeit Sabbath (Manuscript 122, 1901). 1BC 1109.2
There are abundant evidences of the immutability of God's law. It was written with the finger of God, never to be obliterated, never to be destroyed. The tables of stone are hidden by God, to be produced in the great judgment-day, just as He wrote them (The Review and Herald, March 26, 1908). 1BC 1109.3
When the judgment shall sit, and the books shall be opened, and every man shall be judged according to the things written in the books, then the tables of stone, hidden by God until that day, will be presented before the world as the standard of righteousness. Then men and women will see that the prerequisite of their salvation is obedience to the perfect law of God. None will find excuse for sin. By the righteous principles of that law, men will receive their sentence of life or of death (The Review and Herald, January 28, 1909). 1BC 1109.4Read in context »
After the Lord had given Moses directions in regard to the sanctuary, he again gave him special instructions in regard to his Sabbath. And then he handed down from the cloud with his own divine hands the tables of stone to Moses, whereon he had engraven with his own finger the ten commandments. 3SG 273.1
But while Moses was receiving special instructions from God, the children of Israel were corrupting themselves at the foot of the mount. “And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him. And Aaron said unto them, Break off the golden ear-rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me. And all the people brake off the golden ear-rings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron. And he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf. And they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. And when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it, and Aaron made proclamation, and said, Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord. And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt-offerings, and brought peace-offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.” 3SG 273.2Read in context »
After Moses had told the Lord that he was unable to bear the burden of the people alone, and God had directed him to choose seventy of the elders, and he had put the same spirit upon them which was upon Moses, Aaron and Miriam were jealous because they had not been consulted in the matter. They had not felt reconciled to the act of Moses in so readily receiving the counsel of Jethro, his father-in-law. They feared that he had more influence over Moses than they had. And now, seventy elders had been chosen without their being consulted, and as they had never themselves felt the responsibility and burdens which Moses had borne for the people, they did not see any real necessity for the help of the seventy elders. “And they said, Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? Hath he not spoken also by us? And the Lord heard it.” 4aSG 19.1
Aaron and Miriam thought that as they had been chosen to aid Moses in the work, that they bore the burden of the work as well as Moses. And as the Lord had spoken by them, as well as by Moses, why should he complain of such heavy burdens as to need seventy of the judges and elders appointed to the work of aiding him. Moses felt his weakness. He felt the great work committed to him, as no other man had ever felt. Aaron had shown his weakness by yielding to the people, and making a molten calf in the absence of Moses. God had ever been Moses’ counselor. 4aSG 19.2
As Miriam became jealous of Moses, she was disposed to find fault with the events of his life which God had especially over-ruled. She complained of Moses because he married an Ethiopian woman, instead of taking a wife from among the Hebrews. The wife of Moses was not black, but her complexion was some darker than the Hebrews. She was of a timid disposition, tender-hearted, and was greatly affected to witness suffering. This was the reason that Moses consented to have her return to Midian, while he was in Egypt, that she might not witness the terrific plagues which the Lord was to bring upon Egypt. After she met her husband in the wilderness, she saw that his burdens and anxieties were liable to wear away his strength, and in her distress she acquainted her father with the matter. Jethro had marked that the care of all the people was upon Moses, and therefore he counseled him to look after the religious interest of the Hebrew host, while worthy men, free from covetousness, should be selected to look after the secular concerns of the people. 4aSG 19.3Read in context »